Terry Gilliam is arguably the only working filmmaker who could make an interesting Harry Potter movie, yet I doubt his name was ever mentioned for that series -- even when dealing with wizards, producers keep a frugal mind, pinching not parade-float effects but imagination. Too extravagant, it is said of Gilliam, as once it was said of Gance, though that would have scarcely been the first time the maker of Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen dealt with studio fingers in the pie; indeed, his new project, The Brothers Grimm, got reportedly poked by the patented Wienstein futzing, from casting to scoring, so much that the director actually put the movie on hold and shot another one (Tideland, still unreleased) during the hiatus. No need to slam the door shut on the way out, however -- the resulting film is wide-eyed, messy, lustrous, rich with enchantment, both giddy and perverse. A child is caked with mud, and her facial features get smeared away along with the muck on her face; seconds later, the sinister mud-glob morphs into a gingerbread man, promptly taking a bite out of itself ("I taste good!"). The moment, blessedly, has less to do with Rowling than with Jan Svankmajer, magus of the grotesque, whose Czech homeland in fact housed the production.
Then again, maybe it's a Shrek nod, where the same fairy-tale reservoir was soured with post-modern cynicism. Actually, cynicism is woven into Gilliam's narrative, the better to temper it with wonder -- the split at the center of the auteur's career (fact vs. fiction, or better still, reality vs. dreams) is imbedded in the brotherly duo, pragmatic Wilhelm (Matt Damon) and fantasy-inclined Jacob (Heath Ledger), the dynamics given right off the bat, young Jacob returning home with "magic" beans only to be met by his bro's realist slapping. Merely the first reminder of the brother's future as the 19th-century's premier fabulists; others include Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and Rapunzel, all populating the woods, waiting for their "Once upon a times." Not yet storytellers, however, the Grimms are instead traveling charlatans, exploiting folklore for money as they go from hamlet to hamlet to vanquish carefully planted foes. It's "French-occupied Germany," Napoleonic Jonathan Pryce in command, so it's a matter of time for the boys to be forced into genuine magic territory, namely a town where all the young girls are vanishing in the woods. Plucky Love-Interest Lena Headey leads them into the dark forest, where Gilliam gets his Monty Python-Jabberwocky freak on -- a horse shoots webs out of its mouth to snatch a maiden, trees scuttle side to side, and Peter Stormare's Italian torture-master burlesque all but engulfs the action.
The most magically shimmering forest next to the second half of Tropical Malady, although The Brothers Grimm remains virtually handmade in Gilliam's preference for concoctions where the gears are visible, vertiginously pulling-away camera, and low-brow slapstick: vaudevillian accents trawled on, sidekicks hung upside down over boiling pots with escargots glued to their mugs, a fluffy white cat kicked into the blades of a torture-chamber gadget. The pace is frantic, but there's always a personal, heartfelt dimension to the storybook mayhem -- the elaborate fake witch-exorcism at the beginning displays the artist revealing the secrets of his mise-en-scène, the same effects later to be turned legitimate up in the tower, with Monica Bellucci as the Mirror Queen, a Euro sex-bomb buried under mummified latex. "Truth is much more terrible than fiction," she says, yet it could be Gilliam speaking, or possibly Fellini circa Roma and And the Ship Sails On, when a culture's mythology is as troubling as it is invaluable (when Pryce proceeds to torch the enchanted woods, the townspeople revolt). Reviewers are bound to miss the point, as they are wont to with the filmmaker, the same way they met his previous, stupefying Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with complete incomprehension. But no matter -- Gilliam the visionary will survive small-minded punditry, and the movie will grow long after the crumbling of An Unfinished Life, or The Great Raid, or...
...or The Constant Gardener, for that matter. No studio interference here: after the critical circle-jerk that was City of God's reception, director Fernando Meirelles got carte-blanche for his first Hollywood work, and the results are just as irresponsibly pernicious and, predictably, just as drooled over by the reviewers. Africa is "in," apparently, after Hotel Rwanda, In My Country and The Interpreter, and the director is eager to jump on the gravy wagon, bursting with "relevant" lip service. Ralph Fiennes, the titular meek, low-level British diplomat, meets his beloved (Rachel Weisz), a mouthy activist, during a lecture, confronting him on the U.S. imperialism over "Vietnam: The Sequel." Seconds later, the two are rolling in bed, rendered atomized-white by the tricksy lenses -- dread is the mood, however, so the skittering cutting shifts from the lovers in glowing sheets to a charred body on a gloomy slab in Kenya. Weisz' pocking around post-colonial skullduggery unleashed the goons, and since this is a John Le Carré adaptation, there's plenty more rot to be uncovered by a distraught Fiennes, a shy man suddenly empowered by emotions. The trajectory is from complacency to involvement, at least in theory, for the pharmaceutical conspiracies brewing under the African sun ultimately amount to hangers on which to stuff eye-catching directorial narcissism.
Quicksilver changes in stock, filters, focus, fractured editing, temporal dislocation, people repeatedly vanishing into blurry brightness -- does Meirelles (and Iñárritu) realize that the relentless fragmenting, supposedly shorthand for visceral intensity, is instead the same soulless sheen as Ridley Scott's, only minced to bite-size? Anyway, his bag of tricks has only grown since City of God, but one element has stuck to go along with his churning montage: the offensively condescending tourist's eye, just as externalized in Africa as it was in the Brazilian slums, dark-skinned poverty and misery made safely slick for international consumption. "This is how the world fucks with Africa," Pete Postlethwaite says bluntly, although the inquisitive thrust of the narrative is spurious; what's the suffering of the indigenous masses next to the troubles of a bunch of European outsiders? The same irresponsible juicing-up of squalor made the previous film sickening, yet the critics for whom The Constant Gardener was made are already hailing it "mature" and "uncompromising," playing right into its fuzzy politics and Bwana outrage. Meant as a scald job, it dodges the complex feeling of culpability of such underrated works as Besieged or In My Country, instead settling for fatuous film-school doodling that distances rather than connects. The real mystery is why Brazilian directors like Meirelles and Walter "who-died-and-made-you-king-of-Latin-American-cinema?" Salles, given clout, decide to film bad American movies instead of good Brazilian ones.
Reviewed September 8, 2005.